What if they held a special primary election and many voters weren’t quite sure when it was, who exactly was running or whether they even lived in the district?
And what if — as some voters in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District might just be learning — that election is actually on Tuesday? And that there are 32 candidates from which to choose?
“It came up quickly,” said Sanjeev Varghese of Ellicott City. “The field is pretty large, and it’s difficult to keep up with the policies and platforms of each of the candidates.”
Varghese, 42, and a public defender, was eating lunch at a restaurant in Catonsville this week when one of the Democratic candidates, law professor F. Michael Higginbotham, approached to make his pitch. Varghese was undecided but plans to make up his mind and vote Tuesday.
He and other voters are faced with choosing from a crowded field who will serve the remainder of the term of Elijah Cummings, the beloved congressman who represented the district from 1996 until his death Oct. 17. The term runs through Jan. 3.
While overshadowed by other races this year, including Baltimore mayor and U.S. president, the special election looms large to some, given the prominence of Cummings, a trusted lieutenant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and chair of the Oversight Committee, and the history and needs of the 7th District.
The 7th — whose geographic heart remains West Baltimore although it now encompasses parts of Howard and Baltimore counties — is the district that sent Maryland’s first black congressman to Washington.
That was Parren Mitchell, of the renowned family of civil rights activists, whose 1970 election stunned the white political establishment and ushered in a new era of black representation. The district is about 52 percent African American today, down from close to 80 percent in the past.
Only four men have represented the 7th District since it was created 68 years ago. One of them, Kweisi Mfume, is running to reclaim the seat that he gave up in 1996 and that Cummings then won in a special election. Others among the 24 Democratic candidates this time include Cummings’ widow, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, his former aide Harry Spikes and several state legislators, including Sen. Jill P. Carter and Dels. Talmadge Branch, Terri Hill and Jay Jalisi.
Several experts expect Tuesday’s turnout to be low, given that no other races will be on the ballot.
Baltimore County and Howard County schools will be closed Tuesday because of the special primary. Many of the schools in those school systems are 7th District polling places. The Baltimore City Public Schools system plans to close only the schools in the 7th District.
Seventh District voters actually face two rounds of elections for their congressional representative. In Tuesday’s special primary, they will pick the Democratic and Republican candidates to face off in a general election April 28 to serve out the remainder of Cummings’ term.
But April 28 is also the regularly scheduled primary election day — for such high-profile races as Baltimore mayor as well as for all U.S. House seats, including the 7th, for the term that begins next January. By and large, the same candidates are running both to serve out Cummings’ term and for the full two-year term.
In a district where 68 percent of voters are Democratic and just 16 percent Republican, the Democratic primary generally determines the winner.
Observers like Baltimore County Council member Tom Quirk say the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary will be in good position going into the race for the full term.
“I think whoever wins this one will definitely be perceived as the clear front-runner,” he said.
“It’s almost like the Iowa of the primary, or the New Hampshire,” said Quirk, referring to key early tests in the Democratic presidential race. “Those initial votes I think will say a lot."
John T. Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state and scholar of politics and elections, expects a certain amount of confusion Tuesday.
“People are going to show up saying, ‘I want to vote for mayor,’" said Willis, executive in residence at the University of Baltimore’s School of Public and International Affairs.
He anticipates as little as 10 percent or 15 percent of the district’s roughly 510,000 registered voters could go to the polls on Tuesday.
“Lower turnout raises the uncertainty level,” Willis said.
The candidates have had to campaign across a sprawling district in a relatively short amount of time, he said.
“That makes it very hard for the candidates to cover a district that goes from the western edge of Howard County to almost the eastern edge of Baltimore County,” Willis said.
Willis expects “the most fervent, regular party participants” will turn out, even as more casual voters stay home.
While turnout might be low, Nellie Maletta, 59, of Columbia said the election feels important nonetheless because of the weight of history.
Because Cummings held the seat for so long, she said people might be motivated to come out to honor his legacy.
And there is an even deeper reason that should drive people like her to the polls, said Maletta, an administrator at the Community College of Baltimore County.
“African American women of my generation should come out because we know what it cost," she said. “It cost lives to have the right to vote.”
Matthew Crenson, author of the book “Baltimore: A Political History,” said the short campaign means the lesser-known candidates are racing the clock to introduce and distinguish themselves in a pack that includes current and former officeholders with built-in followings, he said.
“Not only are there so many candidates, quite a few are credible,” Crenson said. "There’s a handful with name recognition and visibility and the ability to rise above the rest.
“It’s not likely a complete unknown could win," he said. "The lesser-known candidates just don’t have time.”
Gov. Larry Hogan announced Oct. 28 that the special primary would be held just 14 weeks later, on Feb. 4.
Crenson said the size of the field could create a “low threshold” for victory. The vote “could be so fractured, you could get elected with 15 percent of it.”
Whoever wins, they will succeed rather than replace Cummings, he said.
“Nobody has his stature,” Crenson said. “His position as chair of the Oversight Committee put him in the spotlight. He became a national figure.”
And indeed, as Cummings’ committee launched multiple investigations into the Trump administration, the congressman and the district drew the president’s wrath. That happened after Klacik, now a Republican candidate, appeared on Fox News talking about trash and blight in West Baltimore.
“Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” Trump tweeted July 27. “If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”
Baltimoreans were incensed, Crenson said, particularly because it was “an attack on Cummings, and so close before his death.”
While Trump’s insult stems from a stereotypical view of the inner city, the district over the years has come to include such well-off enclaves as Ellicott City and part of Columbia in Howard County and Monkton and Hunt Valley in Baltimore County. The 7th was created in 1952 and has changed greatly over the years via redistricting and gerrymandering that have largely kept it Democratic and majority African American.
Over the years, 7th District voters have tended to stick with their House representative, reelecting occupants of the seat to multiple terms.
Interest in the current campaign was slow to build, says Larry Young, a former state senator who hosts a talk show on WOLB radio.
“But in the last several weeks,” he said, “it’s become the barbershop, beauty salon, bus stop talk.”
While the shorter length of the campaign compresses all that needs to get done — fundraising, door-knocking, garnering endorsements — it doesn’t really change what wins elections, Young said.
“It’s the one who can get the vote out,” Young said, “the one really out there, putting a structure of support behind them.”
Willis sees a parallel between Tuesday’s special election to one held in April 1981 in the 5th Congressional District, which also attracted 32 candidates.
The previous October, Gladys Noon Spellman, a Democrat, suffered a heart attack two days before she was reelected to a fourth term in the House. She fell into a coma from which she never recovered, and in February, Congress declared the seat vacant. Then as now, the candidates for her seat included several state legislators and her husband, Reuben.
The Democratic primary winner was Steny Hoyer, previously president of the Maryland Senate. He garnered 14,127 votes, about 30 percent of the vote and 1,653 more than the second-place finisher, Reuben Spellman.
Cummings himself won the 7th District seat in a special election to replace Mfume, who announced he was stepping down to head the NAACP. That triggered an intense three-month campaign, culminating in the March 1996 primaries that, again, drew 32 candidates.
Political consultant Martha McKenna worked for one of them, state Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, who came in third.
Now McKenna is working for another candidate in another 32-candidate field, Cummings’ widow Rockeymoore Cummings, in another short, fast-paced race.
“It’s really been a sprint to the finish line,” McKenna said.
It’s hard to know what to expect on Tuesday, she said.
“The last data we have is ’96, and everything has changed since then,” she said. “I had AOL dial-up in 1996. The internet was in its infancy."
Turnout in 1996 was “abysmally low, with just 20 percent of Baltimore voters casting ballots citywide and 23 percent of county voters going to the polls,” according to a Baltimore Sun article at the time. Cummings won with 37 percent of the vote.
McKenna is not as bearish as other political observers on Tuesday’s turnout, saying that “we’ve seen a pretty engaged electorate in Baltimore.”
“I think that’s part of continuing Elijah Cummings’ legacy,” she said. “He would want us to vote.”